I have not bought a ready-meal for years. But I am a regular purchaser of the kinds of products that Delia Smith has been criticised for endorsing in her unfortunately titled How to Cheat at Cooking (Ebury Press). Stock cubes or powder, ready-prepared puff pastry, bottled peppers, curry powders and pastes, as well as various tins: tomatoes, soups, haricot and other beans, chickpeas, tuna. I part company with Delia only when we get to grated cheeses and pre-prepared vegetables. They seem to me to be decadent, overpriced products; and their packaging is nutritionally and environmentally suspect.
Eating lunch at home, I want to prepare the meal quickly. And I want a pudding - even though I suspect that this jolt of sweetness, irresistible at the time, sabotages my energy levels in the afternoon. I am an aficionado of mass-produced sweet things. "This tastes of chemicals," I think as I eat an Alpro vanilla dessert pot; but the following day I have another one. My latest discovery is Tesco's strawberry cheesecake. While the jammy top is rather artificial, the filling has a seductive, creamy foaminess, like that of a Tunnock's teacake. Crucially, the biscuit base is crunchy. Too many cheesecakes get that bit wrong.
Delia likes to make fishcakes with tinned salmon. I agree that it works well; but there is one downside, which is that the cakes give off a disconcerting aroma of cat food. Heating tinned tuna is not wholly advisable, either. Instead, I use it most often in a salad with rice and vinaigrette, and with ingredients such as olives, bottled peppers or artichoke hearts, toasted pine kernels or sesame seeds, raisins soaked for ten minutes or so in boiling water, and parsley. I might hard-boil an egg as well.
Many varieties of tinned sardines are excellent: I like a Portuguese brand called Queen of the Coast, stocked at my local deli. The sardines, which come in a spicy tomato sauce, do cope with heating. I mash them with some additional spice, chopped parsley and perhaps some pine kernels, spread them on toast and heat them under the grill. Or I toss warmed sardines with spaghetti.
Haricot or cannellini beans might replace the rice in the tuna salad. But my favourite use of tinned beans is to make soup with them: onion, garlic, cumin, beans (slimy liquid and all), a third of a stock cube, harissa. Lovely. But not a dish I would serve to anyone I was trying to impress.
I prepared a slightly adapted version of Delia's lobster and coconut soup, with tinned bisque, coconut milk, lemon grass, ginger, cayenne and lime. Yes, it fell short of Michelin standards and it lingered in the mouth for the best part of the afternoon. But it took - in the middle of a working day - less than 15 minutes to prepare, and it tasted fine. That is not good enough for some of Delia's critics, but it is for me.